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From Cecil the lion to Indiana’s deer

Why state legislation is needed to address canned hunting

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The Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University in England tagged Cecil for study and had been following his movements since 2008 until his untimely death.
  • The Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University in England tagged Cecil for study and had been following his movements since 2008 until his untimely death.


The killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe this July outraged the world. Anger rained down on the American dentist—a convicted felon now in hiding—who paid $55,000 for the trophy hunting safari. Walter Palmer and his guides lured Cecil from the protection of Hwange National Park at night, blinded him with spotlights, wounded him with a steel arrow from a high-powered crossbow then shot him to death some 40 hours later. Palmer and his group then skinned and beheaded the patriarch of two prides, according to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. All of this happened despite the fact that Cecil was wearing a GPS tracking device in his collar, indicating he was being monitored by Oxford University.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, trophy hunters kill approximately 600 lions each year. With lion populations in Africa reduced to roughly 30,000 due to trophy killing, preemptive and retaliatory killing by livestock owners and loss of habitat resulting from conversion to farmland and increased urbanization, Cecil’s death was the final straw for many animal lovers, dismayed by the needless slaughter for a “trophy.”

Need and greed feed the “rich foreign tourist hunter” business in Africa. Canned hunts are big business in poor countries, where farm-raised big game animals are confined to fenced areas so they can easily be cornered, with no chance of escape. If they get too big, they may be drugged before being released into a “hunting” enclosure. It takes no skill or strength to track down and kill these animals. They stand no chance of escaping, fighting back or surviving, and many, like Cecil, endure a prolonged, painful death.

This pre-packaged slaughter in the name of sport hunting raises many ethical questions. Not only do more people find gunning down endangered species for a “trophy” to be repugnant, but they are also repulsed by the illegality of poaching and the unfairness of canned hunts.

But these types of hunts are not exclusive to the African continent. They also exist in the United States and here in Indiana.

In the can
Canned hunting, a.k.a. high-fence hunting or captive hunting, is a method in which hunters pay a fee to shoot an animal in a fenced enclosure. There are more than 1,000 captive hunting facilities in the U.S., four of which are in Indiana.

Erin Huang, Indiana state directer for the Humane Society of the U.S.
  • Erin Huang, Indiana state directer for the Humane Society of the U.S.
The cervidae (deer, moose, reindeer and caribou) are farm-raised. “They become accustomed to people; they aren’t afraid of humans,” states Erin Huang, Indiana state director, Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). They’re also accustomed to being fed in specific areas at regular times, which makes them easy targets for shooters.
The animals are bred to have unnaturally large antlers, Huang continues. “Some of them can’t even raise their heads.”

While that may make for a better trophy, many believe that captive hunting makes for unethical tactics. “In a high-fence enclosure, the animals have no ability to escape,” Huang says. Confining them is the very antithesis of fair chase.

The Indiana Deer Hunters Association, the Indiana Wildlife Federation, the Hoosier Environmental Council and the state chapter of the Humane Society stand in opposition to captive hunting. Boone & Crockett, Pope & Young and the Izaak Walton League decry the violation of the principle of fair chase and criticize hunting preserves for undermining Indiana’s long-held wildlife management philosophy that all wildlife are held in public trust and managed by the state for all citizens.

Back home in Indiana
Does that sense of infuriated repulsion to trophy hunting witnessed by the reactions to Cecil’s death apply to deer slain in Indiana’s canned hunting facilities?

“Hoosiers don’t support it,” states Senator Pete Miller (R-Brownsburg). “Last spring 80 percent [of Hoosiers] were against canned hunting.”

The Indiana Wildlife Federation, the Indiana Division of the Izaak Walton League of America, Indiana Sportsman’s Round Table, Indiana Deer Hunters Association, Indiana Bow Hunter Association, Indiana Conservation Alliance and Quality Deer Management Association are opposed to “canned hunting” in Indiana because it violates important ethical standards, impairs wildlife health and threatens Indiana’s economy. According to all of the groups listed, shooting tame deer in a pen is not ethical. Hunting captive deer that cannot escape from enclosed pens violates principle of fair chase.

It also threatens wildlife health. “A big concern is chronic wasting disease and its spread,” Huang says. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a contagious neurological disease that quickly spreads among captive herds and is transmitted by animal-to-animal contact or animal-to-soil contact. There is no cure for CWD. Showing no signs for months, the disease stays in the ground for a long time.

“It’s devastating. Healthy deer could pick it up from the ground or from nose-to-nose transmission through the  fence. Animals have escaped.” Huang says. “If it gets into outside wildlife, it’s a big problem.”

Pete Miller (R-Brownsburg)
  • Pete Miller (R-Brownsburg)
In 2015 Miller authored Senate Bill 442, which would have made hunting preserves illegal, but it didn’t get a hearing. Previous bills in recent years have failed. HB 1453, authored by Rep. Sean Eberhart (R-Shelbyville), would have legalized and regulated privately-owned facilities that stock deer and elk for trophy-seekers, who pay to shoot the semi-tame animals trapped in enclosures for guaranteed kills, and prevented new facilities from opening. The Senate defeated it.

In 2014 two canned hunting bills were introduced: HB 1154 and SB 404. Both failed. HB 1194 would have legalized the captive hunting preserves the prior year, but was never heard in committee. SB 487 to legalize existing facilities died in committee. In 2012 HB 1265 to legalize the facilities stalled in the Senate.

Because these bills keep failing — As Miller points out — there are currently no rules and no regulation. “The House wants it; the Senate does not.”

According to Mason Dixon polling research conducted by the HSUS, Indiana residents don’t want canned hunting. Huang, who has testified every year a new bill is introduced, says, “The people of Indiana want it banned. The state needs to listen.”

The complicated issue began in 2005 when the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) — by using a permitting system to hold wild animals and by issuing game breeder licenses — tried to end canned hunting through administrative law, Miller explains.

Two separate lawsuits resulted, recalls IDNR’s Phil Bloom. “One for DNR, one against.”

The issue went to the state Court of Appeals, which decreed that IDNR overstepped its authority in trying to ban high-fence hunting preserves and has no jurisdiction over legally held wildlife.

IDNR argued that I.C. § 4-22-20.5-2 “explicitly forbids the hunting of the privately owned deer of … breeding operations.” But Judge Ezra Friedlander ruled that while all wild animals are the property of the people of Indiana, the people do not own animals in captivity. Therefore, the IDNR cannot manage privately owned deer. In dissent, Judge C.J. Vaidik said IDNR does have the authority to regulate all wild animals on private or public properties.

Not satisfied with that level of protection, the industry is “pushing to legalize,” Huang says, “but they haven’t been able to for 10 years.” She says the two options are to ban it, as Miller’s bill would have done (along with banning drones to locate animals and Internet hunting) or to legalize and regulate it. “Most people are against canned hunting, but at least want regulation.”

The killing of wildlife and the killing of livestock are regulated by law. But there are currently no rules in regards to these animals. A 2014 investigation by The Indianapolis Star uncovered numerous examples of hunters so obsessed with obtaining trophy antlers that they were “willing to blur ethical lines.”

The legislature can make another attempt when it’s in session next year — a short session from January to March. Until then, the industry of high-fenced hunting remains unregulated.

The Indiana General Assembly cannot come to an agreement when it comes to fenced hunting.
  • The Indiana General Assembly cannot come to an agreement when it comes to fenced hunting.

The big question

Miller doesn’t understand the allure of hunting inside a fence. “If you want a rack, just go to a deer farm and order one.”

A 2010 poll indicated that 80 percent of residents were opposed to canned hunts. Even deer hunters are concerned, according to a 2007 IDNR Division of Fish and Wildlife survey.

If ethical hunters and most of the general population are in favor of banning canned hunts, why has it been so difficult to legislate?

“Indiana farmers are raising deer; they have influence,” Miller concedes. There are nearly 400 deer farms in Indiana. The Indiana Deer and Elk Farmers Association is behind a move to a self-policing program called the Indiana Deer Advisory Council. However, Miller says the “economic benefit to those few pales in comparison with the economic risk to hunting outside the fence.”

So where does a compromise lie? “Short of banning it outright, we have limited opportunities,” Miller believes.
There may not be a compromise. “Animals being bred to be trophies? We don’t want to put our stamp of approval on that,” Huang declares.

“These facilities have to shut down,” insists Walfredo de Freitas, founder of the Indiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Our position is that it’s insufficient to ban or regulate and limit canned hunting.”

Advocates opposed to trophy hunting will continue to push, both for more education and for an end, Huang says. “Cecil brought more attention to captive hunting and the trophy hunting industry. He was a symbol; people loved and admired him. [His death] helps expose it so we can educate. We’re hoping the outrage will push the bill again and that it’s fodder for the bill to be heard.”

Although de Freitas expresses concern about trying to change the minds of Hoosiers in a short time period, he believes there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Public opinion about “sport” hunting is changing. As Miller says, it’s neither sport nor hunting. “That is slaughter, folks.”


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